European Affairs

Too much revisionist history has been written recently by those incapable of this necessary degree of separation. We have been blithely told by Robert Kagan that Europeans are from Venus and Americans from Mars, by Francis Fukuyama that history ended when the Cold War did and by Paul Johnson that we are all going to hell in a hand basket because of the collapse of Judeo-Christian values. All prove that polemicism isn’t history.

But there have also been any number of others of the younger academic generation who have the right balance— Garry Wills, Tony Judt (whose book titled Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 was reviewed in European Affairs, volume 7 nos. 1 & 2), Douglas Brinkley and Ian Buruma come to mind. All have perspectives and convictions, religious, political and personal. But the safeguards of scholarship are rarely, if ever, sacrificed on their personal altars.

Niall Ferguson, perhaps surprisingly to some, deserves inclusion in this estimable league, not least because, like them, he can write like a dream and has the most eclectic range of interests. His new book, TheWar of theWorld: Twentieth- Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, may or may not tell a reader anything new but it surely knits together a multitude of disparate threads into a coherent and snugly fitting garment.

Ferguson, a Transatlantic academic of British origin now mostly perched in Harvard, does not himself come without baggage. He has a parallel public career as a prolific commentator with very strong convictions, as much on the right as Schlesinger was on the left. He supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, does not think much of the European Union, has been branded an apologist for colonial ism and has the general reputation of being a radical Tory. (He is sometimes mentioned as the role model for Irwin, the bloodless if brilliant teacher in Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play and now film, “The History Boys.”)

But little of this partisanship comes over in The War of the World, which he begins in 1904 with Japan’s defeat of Russia and which he does not see necessarily as having ended yet. His central hypothesis is that three factors run through this unprecedented eruption of conflict and carnage—ethnic conflict, the decline of empires and economic volatility. Conventional wisdom ascribes dominant roles to the actions of ruthless dictators (Mao, Stalin, Hitler etc.) and the ever more destructive nature of military warfare, from nuclear bombs to carpet bombing, but Ferguson, while certainly not ignoring them, does not.

He never considers the 20th century to have been dominated by the West, as the 19th surely was, or by the United States, though American democratic values, as promulgated byWoodrowWilson, were influential in the creation of so many nation states carved out of collapsing empires and endowed with large ethnic minorities, but committed, at least in principle, to the ideas of ethnic assimilation.

The flashpoints turned out, invariably, to be in those fractious states, from the Baltics to the Balkans in Europe, on the Korean Peninsula and in Manchuria —“fault lines between the tectonic plates of four great empires.” (Specifically in this context, he cites Turkey, Russia, Germany and Japan.) In Europe, in particular, the process of assimilation appeared well in train—as measured, for example, by ethnic inter-marriage. Yet perversely, and contrary to Western liberal expectations, this “progress” did not produce a lessening of social tensions but exacerbated them, all the way up to ethnic cleansing.

At the same time, the great empires, which once could bring whole countries to heel with relatively minor exertions of force, were either less able or less inclined to intervene; partly they were more focused on the intentions of each other. Later the Cold War never led to a clash of the two main nuclear powers, as the first two global conflicts had between empires. Instead, the conflict of the superpowers was “fought indirectly in new and more remote theatres, where the strategic stakes (though not the human costs) were lower.”

Economic volatility—the 30 year cycle after the First World War of “inflation, deflation, boom, bust and depression”— had compounding effects. It weakened the existing empires, undermined new democracies and heightened racial antipathies. “They paved the way for the empire-states that arose in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany, each with its own pathological yearning for ethnic homogeneity and hierarchy.” Economic volatility was to justify Stalin’s creation of the planned economy and Hitler’s concept of economic recovery through territorial expansion—“lebensraum” in German to mean the land and resources the Reich intended to gain by conquest.

If this sounds heavy, Ferguson leavens his account with much excellent anecdotal history—the finely parsed deliberations of the British establishment up to and after the Munich agreement in 1938 is deliciously rendered, culminating in Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated claim to have negotiated “peace in our time.” There are recollected scraps of first drafts of history—not merely in the press but also culled from notes from RAF bomber pilots on returning from flattening German cities— that speaks volumes about the attitudes of the times. There is a little of the Studs Terkel, America’s great oral historian, in Niall Ferguson—and, luckily, a lot more of Arthur Schlesinger.

Jurek Martin
is the former foreign editor of the Financial Times.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.